Saturday, September 3, 2011

Footloose in the Palouse

Palouse wheatfield from Steptoe Butte
“Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain….”  While Katherine Bates penned those famous lines in Colorado, she could very well have been standing on the top of Steptoe Butte in southeastern Washington. As far as the eye can see, it’s a rolling landscape of undulating knolls covered with wheat, barley, and lentils. It looks unlike any farmland in this country, yet it is some of the most fertile land in the world.

How did it get this way?  During the Ice Age, colossal dust storms deposited layers of glacial silt in an area from present day Spokane to Walla Walla, along the Washington-Idaho border. The soil is called loess, from the German word for loose, and consists of microscopic, colloidal particles that are held together by tiny electrical charges. It is wonderfully fertile and has a unique ability to retain moisture. By holding the winter and spring water through the dry summer months, there is no need for irrigation and the region has never experienced a crop failure. The Palouse is the world leader in the production of soft, white winter wheat, and Whitman County has been the top wheat producing county in the U.S. since 1978.

To appreciate the beauty of this farm country, a visitor needs to find some elevation for a bird’s eye view. The highest point in the area is Steptoe Butte near Colfax where the road spirals around several times to reach the summit at 3,600-feet. From this vantage point, especially in the early morning and late afternoon when shadows are more pronounced, the unusual lumpiness of the landscape can be appreciated. Another good viewpoint is Kamiak Butte County Park near the town of Palouse. There’s an expansive panorama from the shady picnic area and an even better vista from the summit, reached by a forested hiking trail.

There are two “best” times to visit the Palouse area. One is in late May when the newly planted crops create a palate of vivid greens and bright yellows. By mid-August, the palate shifts to the soft, golden hues of maturing wheat.  This is harvest time and the hills are alive with gigantic combines and other farm equipment costing more than the average house. It’s fascinating to watch these behemoths climb up and around the hillsides without tipping over.  August is also the time of the National Lentil Festival in Pullman, Wash.

Pullman is the largest town in the area and home of Washington State University. The campus is worth visiting for its museums of anthropology and art, but more importantly, the WSU Creamery. Here, milk from local cows is transformed into scrumptious ice cream as well as Cougar Gold cheese, both available at Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe in the Food Quality Building.

Dahmen Barn, Uniontown
While the Palouse doesn’t have much to offer in terms of major tourist attractions, it is a wonderful place for driving around and enjoying rural, small town America. The Palouse Scenic Byway covers more than 200 miles through the rolling farmland and connects a series of prosperous, small farm communities. Uniontown, in the southern part of the tour, is home to the much-photographed Dahmen Barn. This rustic dairy barn has been converted to an art center and more than a dozen local artists maintain studios in what had been cow stalls and haylofts. There is a gallery and shop where locally-crafted pottery, paintings, jewelry, and fiber arts are available for sale. What makes the barn so popular with photographers is the surrounding fence comprised of 1000 wheels off everything imaginable from baby buggies to threshing machines.

The town is also home to St. Boniface Catholic Church, Washington’s oldest consecrated church. Built in 1904, the church features a striking interior with five altars and stained glass windows; its large size is impressive for a town of 350 people. Another over-sized structure worth checking out is the three-story, wooden J.C. Barron Flour Mill in the town of Oakesdale. It’s empty and looks rather forlorn now, standing as a relic of a thriving milling industry long since gone.

The town of Dayton sits on the southern edge of the Palouse and serves as the county seat for Columbia County. It includes a grand old courthouse, many historical homes, and the Dayton Depot, the oldest existing railroad depot in the state. Beautifully restored, it houses a museum of old railroad memorabilia.

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